The 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup

It was actually called the Coupe Internationale; however, even at the time, everyone referred to it as the Gordon Bennett Cup.  It ran for several years; the first iteration took place in 1900.  It was, by some reports, a complete failure.  But, this minor overture laid the basic foundation for team-based racing.

Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Capti...
Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Caption read “New York Herald”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper man, and son of the creator of the New York Herald, was based in Paris.  Since the 1894 Paris to Rouen run, the New York Herald had paid close attention to the burgeoning sport of automobile racing.  Basically, Mr. Gordon Bennett (a hyphen is incorrect) offered a trophy to the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.).  The trophy, or cup–as it were–offered this trophy to be “competed for under somewhat unusual circumstances.”  In particular, James Gordon Bennett Jr. dictated that the trophy would be competed for and won by the various national auto clubs.  In other words, neither the individual nor the manufacturer would take the honors.  Rather, the honor of the cup was to go to a winning country.  It was Gordon Bennett’s intention to spur automotive innovation by pitting the various national industries against each other.

James Gordon Bennett never attended any of his Coupe Internationales.  In fact, he was not even a big fan of driving.  He was typically known to roll up to his office in a horse-drawn coach.  But, importantly, he did believe that the automobile would transform the landscape.  Living in France, which was also the epicenter of the automobilism movement, Gordon Bennett offered his namesake’s cup to the A.C.F. in October 1899.

By January 1900, the French club had published a series of rules, called the “articles of competition.”  These rules, in and of themselves, are fascinating because they contain the first formalized rules of motorsport.  These rules define everything from the simple construct that the quickest to the finish line wins, to a basic form of parc fermé (generally understood to be the unavailability to modify a vehicle between race sessions).

Before sponsorship, cars were painted in so-called “national colors.”  These colors shifted a bit over time.  For example, Germany switched from white to silver over time (which is its own fascinating story of stripping paint to metal).  The Gordon Bennett Cup started this pre-sponsorship tradition.  The original chosen colors were red for America, white for Germany, yellow for Belgium, and blue for France.

The teams, for the Gordon Bennett Cup, were to be composed of one to three drivers.  The A.C.F. waisted no time in choosing the French Representatives.  The Chevalier René de Knyff received 32 member votes.  Charron received 25 and Girardot was third with 15 votes.  Almost immediately, some members (including possible drivers) were furious.  First, a democratic ballot is necessarily subjective as compared to some sort of tally of race results.  Second, and more importantly, all three selected drivers favored the Panhard et Levassor cars.  However, the Mors cars had been coming on strong since the last half of 1899.  The fallout from the disagreement included a threat by Levegh, Lemaitre, and Giraud to renounce their A.C.F. membership and defect to the competing Belgian club.  The fracas eventually settled.

Organization of the race continued into 1900.  While the A.C.F. had already chosen their drivers, other national clubs through their proverbial hats in the ring but did not specify team members.  England’s national club was conspicuously absent from the international entries.  First, they were focused on their own 1,000-Mile Trial.  Second, they did not actually have any decent race car manufacturers at the time, according to Gerald Rose.

A route was selected.  However, upon measuring the route, it was found to fall too short to be within the recently ratified articles of competition for the G B Cup.  A few tweaks later and it was long enough to pass muster.

Generally, the run up to the competition was plagued by misinformation and disorganization.  The fact that racing had been banned without specific government approval did not help.  There were other problems as well.  Camile Jenatzy’s new Belgian mount was stuck in French customs (which it remained through the date of the actual race, forcing Jenatzy to strip down a touring car of the same make in order to race).  Even Levegh’s recent win at Bordeaux to Periqueux renewed the kerfuffle over the A.C.F. driver selection.

There was serious doubt, even within the organizing A.C.F., as to whether the race would actually occur.  The original date was rescheduled for June 14, 1900.  Some drivers complained there was insufficient notice to prepare there respective cars.  The sole German representative, Eugen Benz, refused to start on these grounds.  However, the real reason he did not start may have been fear that his rear tires were doomed to fail at high speed.  Or, perhaps, it was because his Benz was so slow that his “chance of winning was microscopical.”`

The Race Report

Not unusual for races of this era, the race started just a quarter after 3:00 in the morning.  The entries were: René de Knyff (France), Camille Jenatzy (Belgium), Winton (America), Charron (France), and Girardot (France).  All three French entries did, in fact, end up being Panhard et Levassors.  Winton, the new American, was in a car of his own design.  Jenatzy, the sole Belgian, was stuck in his stripped down Bolide touring car (as his actual racing model remained trapped by French customs for unknown reasons).  Levegh, not chosen by the A.C.F. as an official French entry, raced alongside the others en amateur.

De Knyff and Winton got slow starts.  Girardot and Jenatzy were able to fight for the initial lead.  Just outside of Versailles, Winton’s Winton was in last place.  However, Jenatzy, the original king of the four-wheel-grip-the-grain-all-wheel-drift was already shredding his tires.  Having to replace both rears, he dropped into last place.

English: at the next to a vehicle of his make,...
A 1914 picture of Fernand Charron, the former cyclist, and later car designer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to contemporary reports, at Limours, Girardot was in the lead at 3:49:15.  Charron was second, reaching the checkpoint just under three minutes later.  De Knyff followed only one minute behind.  Winton was in fourth and Jenatzy brought up the rear.  Levegh, the unofficial entry, was 30 minutes ahead of Girardot, the official leader.

At Orléans, roughly the mid-point of the race, things were getting interesting for the competitors.   Charron, for example, was about to give up.  He had badly bent his rear axle in taking a rather ancient drainage ditch (caniveau) too quickly.  However, at Orléans, he was in second and found out that Girardot, the first place runner, had a steering gear in need of immediate repair.   He also found out that de Knyff, was essentially out of the race with a stripped top gear.  Jenatzy and Winton were a long way behind.  Given these facts, Charron soldiered on like a boss (but I’m mixing metaphors again).

I mentioned that Jentazy was way behind.  He had several flat tires, broken spark plugs, and clutch issues–and those were only the start of his issues.  According to Gerald Rose, “vowing that with car troubles, obstreperous gendarmes, dogs, and sheep, he had never in his life driven such a race”.”  Meanwhile, the new American, Winton had bucked a front wheel.  He bowed out just after Orléans, which took him 8:30.00 to reach, compared to the unofficial Levegh’s 5:25.00.

Thus, after Orléans, only Charron and Girardot remained.  But, remember, Charron axle was shot.  Luckily, his riding mechanic (and driver in his own right) Fournier, “staved off disaster by keeping up a steady flow of oil on the chains.”  Girardot was still far behind.  He got lost in Orléans.  This really wasn’t his fault.  By all accounts, this was the result of a poorly organized race.  Also, recall that his steering gear was still giving him problems.

Dogs, in these days of open-road city to city races, were a constant issue.  In his magnum opus, Gerald Rose recounts Charron’s harrowing encounter with a particularly large dog:

The bane of the race were the dogs, and it is said that every single driver killed five or six.  Ten miles before the finish Charron collided with an unusually big St. Bernard when going down hill at nearly sixty miles an hour.  Somehow the dog became wedged between the wheel and the steering arm, completely jamming the steering gear.  The car dashed off the road, across the ditch, between two trees into the neighbouring field, and thence between two more back on to the road, finally coming to rest facing in the direction of Paris, with its two occupants too startles to say anything.  Fournier just got down and re-started the engine, and in a minute the car was speeding on to Lyons as if nothing had happened.

The passage goes on to describe how Fournier had to lean over the edge of the car, in an acrobatic manner, to hold a water pump in place while Charron chugged on to victory.

Lord Montagu called the 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup an “Overture in a Minor Key.”  The crowd at the end of the race confirms this assessment.  The newspapers said there may have been up to 100 people at the finish line.  However, these accounts were a bit generous.  More accurate estimates from the drivers suggest that only about a dozen people were at the finish line to greet Charron on his win.

The final standings were:

  1. Charron (Panhard; 24 HP) 9:09:00 (38.6 mph)
  2. Girardot (Panhard; 24 HP) 10:36:23 (33.4 mph)
  3. De Knyff (Panhard; 24 HP) – (-)
  4. Jenatzy (Bolide; 16 HP) – (-)
  5. Winton (Winton; 14 HP) -(-)

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Sources

“The Gordon-Bennett International Cup Race”, The Motor-Car Journal, 285-287 (June 23, 1900).

The Gordon Bennett Races, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (1965) (Containing some minor discrepancies with the other sources.  As such, I am considering this slightly less reliable than my other, earlier sources).

A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949) (Originally published in 1909).

“The Gordon Bennett International Cup Race” The Horseless Age, Vol. 6 No. 14, p. 14 (1900) (Providing an American perspective on the race).